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Macron still standing as protests and strikes wind down in France

At the behest of France’s trade unions, national and local train lines came screeching to a halt and flights were cancelled as workers took to the streets to protest against changes to pensions and the national retirement age.

French President Emmanuel Macron is determined to see off protests.

French President Emmanuel Macron is determined to see off protests.Credit:Getty Images

Macron charged ahead regardless, offering just a few minor concessions.

As life gradually returns to normal, the 42-year-old President cannot quite be seen as the victor, and neither can the unions be said to have failed. In an environment of heavy malaise, the clash between an increasingly isolated Élysée Palace and the streets continues, only in different forms.

Though the transportation strikes appear to have finished, there are still regular struggles between French police and demonstrators.

In scenes that made headlines last week, firefighters – protesting against the government’s proposed changes to their retirement packages – squared off against national police officers, who used tear-gas and water cannons on their colleagues. Firefighters rank among the most respected public servants in the country.

French unions during a protest in Paris on Friday ahead of the government's release of a bill redesigning the retirement system.

French unions during a protest in Paris on Friday ahead of the government’s release of a bill redesigning the retirement system.Credit:AP

This month, Macron’s reform project will finally be considered in the French Parliament, where it will be attacked by members of the small but loud opposition parties.

Likely joining the opposition will be some members of Macron’s own party, République en Marche (Republic on the Move), which holds an absolute majority in the lower house.

“There is no winner,” said Bruno Cautrès, a political scientist at Sciences Po University in Paris. “There truly seem to be questions that the executive doesn’t want to answer about this reform, including the way it would be financed, and the realities of gains for the French.”

The real issue, Cautrès said, is one of communication.

“There are a number of stereotypes about France, notably that we are never happy,” he said. “But it has to be understood that we are a country where political and social conflict is important. To French ears, the question of social justice is very important. And for the moment, Macron has not made the explanation clear that his reform will be along those lines.”

A protester in Marseille in the south of France on Wednesday.

A protester in Marseille in the south of France on Wednesday.Credit:AP

The first half of the Macron presidency has been marked by nearly constant protests. First came the so-called “yellow vests” in 2018 and 2019, an amorphous movement that mobilised against a controversial carbon tax. It later became a general uprising against social inequality and against Macron himself.

At their height, yellow vest protesters smashed shop windows in the French capital and vandalised beloved monuments like the Arc de Triomphe.

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Then came the recent transport strikes, the longest continuous strike action France has seen in decades. At the height of the Christmas season, strikes interrupted travel for hundreds of thousands of people. Workers, including some teachers, stayed home as many schools and small businesses closed.

The recent strikes have taken their toll, and the irony is that introduction of Macron’s pro-business reforms may have made “le start-up nation” a less-attractive destination for foreign investors than it was before.

On Friday, France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE) released the figures on the country’s economic growth during the fourth quarter of 2019. Gross domestic product fell by 0.1 per cent in the last quarter of 2019, compared with a 0.3 increase in the third quarter.

The French government has acknowledged the dip, but sees it as temporary.

“The strikes in December put a brake on France’s growth in the last quarter of 2019,” said Bruno Le Maire, France’s Finance Minister. “Some of our infrastructure, such as the ports, the railway network and petrol depots, were impacted.”

The government pitches its reform project as necessary, Cautrès said, but given the intricate details it contains, it has failed to explain to the average voter what exactly it would mean.

“No one in France is capable yet of saying exactly what it’s all about.”

The Washington Post

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